How to do the Icelandic South Coast in one day
Let me start by saying that doing the Icelandic South Coast in one day is not what I’d recommend you to do, because there is plenty to see and do and one day is not nearly enough to see everything properly. However, I also realize that many visitors to Iceland are there for just a day or two, either on their way to North America or Europe. When visiting Iceland with a friend in June 2015, we had 3 x 24 hours to spend here and obviously wanted to see and do as much as we could. I had been to Iceland many times before, but for her this would be a first (and only) time to such a natural place, so I wanted her to enjoy it to the max. We saw all the highlights along the South Coast in one very long day and even managed to squeeze in a glacier hike. Here is how we did it:
Overnight in Hella
Instead of overnighting in Reykjavík after our arrival, we stayed in Hella, which is quite a bit into the right direction already. We stayed at the basic cabins of Pension Cafe Arhus, simple yet perfect for the budget traveler. As we were visiting in June, we had long days full of light which made it easier for us to spend all day outdoors. After arrival we picked up our rental car, took a quick plunge in the Blue Lagoon (curious why not to visit? Check this blog!) and then drove over to Hella, a sleepy town that exists of not much more than a few houses and a handful of hotels. We arranged with the owner we could arrive late and as we settled into our cabin, it was still entirely light outside, despite it being way past midnight already!
08:00 – 11:00 Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss
We woke up at 08.00 am and were up in the car at 09.00 am. If you are staying in Reykjavik, it’s about a 45 minute drive down to Hella so this will make your day a bit longer. Our first stop of the day were the waterfalls on the southcoast: Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss. The first waterfall you will encounter is Seljalandsfoss, which is about 30 minutes driving from Hella and although I’ve seen it various times before, it still made a big impression on me. We stopped here for about half an hour to take pictures and get soaked on our hike behind the waterfall. If you decide to hike behind the waterfall, which is very popular, make sure to wear waterproof clothes or be prepared to get very wet. And keep in mind that, with the infamous Icelandic wind, you may not get dry again for the rest of the day…
Next up was Skogafoss, the bigger and even more impressive one. Over here, we also stopped for about 30 minutes. First up we took some pictures at the bottom of the falls. After that we hiked all the way up to the base of the falls, to see the water plunging down into the depth. The hike up is steep with lots of steps, but well worth it if you ask me.
11.00 – 16.00 Glacier hike at Sólheimajökull
From here, we drove up to the Sólheimajökull (jökull means glacier) for a planned glacier walk. From Skogar it’s about a 30-45 minute drive up to the mouth of the glacier, where we met with our guide and fellow hikers. After fitting us into the right boots (thank god we didn’t have to wear a helmet!) we walked up to the mouth of the glacier, which was about a 30-45 minute walk. From here, we hit the ice and we spent about 2 hours exploring the ice and it’s movements. As Iceland is covered by a lot of ice, I think this just has to be done during your trip, even if you have little time. Unless you are going to Alaska, Patagonia or New Zealand, this would be your best bet at walking on ice! If you want to know more about this experience, read my full blog on the glacier hike on Sólheimjökull! It’s advised you book this in advance, especially if you’re on a tight schedule. We booked our hike with Icelandic Mountain Guides and were very happy about the trip.
16.00 – 17.00 Dyrhólaey for puffins
After our glacier hike, we decided to move on to Dyrhólaey to see if we could spot puffins. Unfortunately, a big part of it was fenced off because of the breeding season yet we still managed to see a couple of them in the distance. It was windy and chilly so we didn’t spend a lot of time here, maybe about half an hour, however if there are more puffins and you love photography, you can easily spend hours here, as well as on the black volcanic beach! As we decided to push on a bit further, we decided to keep this part short.
17.00 – 20.00 Southcoast roadtrip
The main reason we decided to only stay at Dyrhólaey for a short period of time, was because we wanted to push onto Jökulsárlón, also known as the iceberg lake. We had been in doubt as it was quite a drive still, but eventually decided that, since we were ‘in the neighbourhood’ anyway, we’d better push on a bit further. From Dyrhólaey it’s 2.5 hours driving but since the roads were empty, we took a little less time. Along the way me made a quick stop in Vík for refuelling and the Skaftafell National Park visitors center for dinner. Bear in mind though that they don’t really have warm food, so instead we grabbed a hummus sandwich. If you want something more than a sandwich, your best bet is to have a stop at the gas station in Vík or in the town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur (try to pronounce that in one go!). Driving in Iceland is always a big pleasure for me, especially because of the empty roads. It was the end of June, which is high season and by 7.00 pm the road was nearly empty. Who says that Iceland is crowded?
20.00 – 21.00 Jökulsárlón
The final bit of the road trip was long and my friend kept wondering why the hell we were going to Jökulsárlón. It’s hard to imagine when you only know something from a picture but I promised her the drive would be well worth it. In fact, it had been 6 years since my last visit to Jökulsárlón, so I was pretty excited to see it again myself, too. Upon arrival I told her ‘look to your left’ and there they were: piles of ice crammed together into a lagoon, right next to the road. My friend immediately said ‘OMG this is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen’ and although it was my second time at Jökulsárlón, I couldn’t agree more. It was a misty evening and that made the massive icebergs even more impressive, because they looked even more dangerous this way.
It’s never sure how much ice there will be in the lagoon but we got lucky and there was a lot of ice. I could have easily stayed here all night and just watch the icebergs move, creak and turn upside down. We took a ton of pictures and once again let ourselves be amazed by the beauty of mother nature. Just see for yourself:
Back to Hella
At about 9 pm we felt it was time to head back to Hella as it was still a 3.5 hour drive back. On the way, we of course stopped plenty of times for pictures and eventually we arrived back in Hella at about 1.00 am. We were knackered but at the same time high with adrenaline because we had seen and done SO MUCH in just one day. As a recap, here is our approximate schedule for our day on the Icelandic South Coast.
Our trip on the Icelandic South Coast in one day:
09.00 departure from Hella to the South Coast
11.00 Departure to Sólheimjökull
12.00 Glacier hike at Sólheimjökull
19.00 Skaftafell NP Visitors Center
21.00 departure back to Hella
01.00 arrival back in Hella
As I said, if you prefer to stay in Reykjavík, just add a 45 minute ride to/from Hella to this itinerary and you will have your day fitted out for you. Find my best places to stay in Reykjavík for any budget here.
Of course, there is a lot more to see and do than just those things that I mentioned. However, you asked me for a one-day guide, so here it is. Ideally, you should spend at least 3 days on Iceland’s South Coast, also allowing you more time for Skaftafell National Park for example. There are just plenty of nice things to do in Iceland and you can easily spend weeks there without doing the same thing twice.
Booking your trip to Iceland
Are you planning on heading to Iceland? Make sure to check our Iceland homepage with a lot of new information after our 10th visit to Iceland. Are you looking for a cheap rental car? Make sure to compare rates for Iceland here. Order your travel guide online as well before you go!
Conclusion and disclaimer
I hope you’ve enjoyed my article about Iceland. If you have any questions, feel free to ask! Note that there are affiliate links in this article. If you make a purchase or reservation through any of these links, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you!
The London Mum
I love Iceland, it’s such a beautiful country and visiting when the days are long just means you have more time to see teh place. You’ve outlined a great itinerary, I’d love to follow it myself when I go back!
I would love to visit Iceland very soon. My husband, daughter and I are very slow travelers, I think it’s important when traveling with a child. However, if it’s just you and friend or two, like with you, it would be great to see everything we need to see in one day. Those photos are absolutely amazing, the South Coast is on our list now.
I hope you and your family can make it to Iceland one day, it’s a perfect place for slow traveling, I’m sure you’d love it, despite the cold 🙂
The scenery looks stunning <3 As you wrote, I would not go there for a day because I would like to take it slowly and see and do a bit more!
Happy to hear that, I hope you can make it there one day!
These photos are too stunning. Everytime I read a blog post on Iceland I save it in my bookmarks for tips and inspiration!
Vicki | MakeTimeToSeeTheWorld
Your pictures are incredible! Iceland is a place of such amazing natural beauty that I think I would have to go for months as I would keep stopping to take photographs and I would never get anywhere!
Great compact itinerary for the time poor visitor tho – you certainly managed to fit a lot in!
Thanks Vicki! Same here, I take too many pics so I think this itinerary could have been much shorter … I know they also run tours from Reykjavik, but that doesn’t allow me to stop just anywhere!
aaahhhh! your photos! I’ve been dreaming of visiting Iceland since I was young. I hope that when I get there, I can stay for at least a few weeks. Great tips!
Thanks Darlene! I hope you can make it to Iceland one day!
Fantastic itinerary, and what an action packed day! I agree with you that I would spend much more time in this region, but it’s definitely something I would recommend if someone only had a limited amount of time … I love that during the summer months you can really get the most out of every single day with the 24 hour sun. That’s what we loved most about our trip to Iceland!
Yeah, I remember you were in Iceland a while ago. The extended daylight is definitely a positive thing but like you, more time would be better. Happy travels Meg!
Trisha Velarmino - P.S. I'm On My Way
I have never been to Iceland or any place in that same latitude and I would love to do so one day. Growing up in a tropical country, I have never been that much enticed with destinations with colder climes but I’ve seen countless pictures of Iceland and your accounts of it seem pretty convincing to me. Such a surreal landscape; so raw and genuine. I can’t wait to get my shot at this. Although I would want to maximise my time and spend more than a day exploring certain areas but it’s highly commendable what you did! More power to you and your travels!
Thanks Trisha! Iceland is uhm, fairly cold, so it would be quite a challenge for you, but … it’s awesome! If you’d decide to travel all the way over, definitely take at least a week, or more!